Seven car washes in Norwich, four sites in King's Lynn and one site in Great Yarmouth were found in breach of regulations last year following fears workers were being exploited.

The Responsible Car Wash Scheme (RCWS) has called on enforcement agencies to accelerate and coordinate their efforts to tackle problems including wage theft, exploitation and malpractice in the hand car wash sector. The not-for-profit organisation aims to raise compliance and standards in the car wash industry.

Teresa Sayers, RCWS managing director, said: "Having visited more than 150 hand car washes over the past two years, it’s clear the sites are currently free to act with impunity and this poses a real threat.

"What’s needed now is a structured, co-ordinated multiagency approach to enforcement. Only then can the embedded culture of this sector be challenged and standards raised."

Great Yarmouth Mercury: Last year, twelve car washes in Norfolk were being investigated for breaches of regulation.Last year, twelve car washes in Norfolk were being investigated for breaches of regulation. (Image: PA)

The plea comes as part of a new report resulting from a two-year study in conjunction with Nottingham Trent University (NTU), into employment, business and environmental practices in the sector.

Backed by the Home Office’s Modern Slavery Prevention Fund and working alongside enforcement agencies including the police, councils and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), the RCWS visited car wash sites in five regions across England to assess levels of non-compliance. 

Activities took place to educate site operators, workers and local communities on the obligations of car washes regarding employee pay and contracts, as well as business, premises and environment care.

Darryl Dixon from the GLAA, said: "The economic downturn means that more workers are now vulnerable to labour exploitation. 

"Prevention, education and enforcement go hand in hand to provide a level playing field for legitimate businesses and reduce the risk of worker exploitation."

There are approximately 5,000 hand car washes in the United Kingdom. The absence of national or local licensing in this sector and a lack of coordinated resources to tackle unlawful practice means that more egregious behaviour such as slavery and organised crime can go unchecked.

Ian Clark, professor of work and employment at NTU, said: "The project highlighted valuable multi-agency working approaches but also revealed a lack of shared strategic objectives and agreed data sharing processes. The report set out clear recommendations to address this."

Nine sites in Ipswich and three in Sudbury were also found to have been non-compliant with work laws.